Updated March 21: “Dune” got two big boosts with MPSE and CAS wins, bolstering its Oscar chances on Sunday. The sci-fi epic took feature effects/foley at the virtual 69th annual MPSE Golden Reel Awards on March 13, and then live-action sound mixing at the 58th annual Cinema Audio Society Awards at the InterContinental Los Angeles Downtown.
Updated February 11: The sound Oscar nominees — “Belfast” (Focus Features), “Dune” (Warner Bros.), “No Time to Die” (MGM/UA), “West Side Story” (20th Century/Disney), and “The Power of the Dog” (Netflix) — provide a range of imaginative soundscapes that connect to the personal stories in fresh ways.
However, the sonic power and complexity of Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” is going to be hard to beat. Its great achievement is creating a grounded reality that is both innovative and believable. So, rather than relying on over-hyped sounds, the sound team (Mac Ruth, “Mad Max: Fury Road” Oscar winner Mark Mangini, Theo Green, Doug Hemphill and Ron Bartlett) conveyed an otherworldly palette that is hallucinatory yet gritty, from supernatural voices that rattle the mind to colossal sandworms that shake the sand dunes of Arrakis. Other highlights include the dragonfly-like ornithopters, whole-body shields that can protect from anything but a slow blade, sand thumpers that boom across the desert like a resonant body to attract the sandworms, and the spice that fuels the universe, glittering and twinkling in the sands.
“No Time to Die” is the first Bond film to be mixed in Atmos, and director Cary Joji Fukunaga wanted the sound team (Simon Hayes, Oliver Tarney, James Harrison, Paul Massey and Mark Taylor) to utilize the larger soundscape for Daniel Craig’s swan song. The Aston Martin DB5 opener in Matera is a great example. It begins with ominous tolling bells panning overhead before the relative stillness is interrupted by the arrival of the baddies. Even this seems muted from within the cocoon of the DB5. A salvo of high velocity rounds then thuds and cracks against the metal and glass of the car from every angle. They wanted this barrage to feel like a brutal 360° assault for the viewer. For the climax in the underground lair, Bond experiences dissonant alert tones and detached Russian dialogue washing out over the PA system, followed by the disconcerting loss of radio communication as he enters the concrete structure, and then the high-octane gunfire of the first-person action sequence on the stairwell.
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“West Side Story” represents Steven Spielberg’s first musical and he wanted it to be more authentic, shooting 80 percent on location with as much on-set recording as possible, and gathered primarily his go-to sound team (Tod A. Maitland, seven-time Oscar winner Gary Rydstrom, Brian Chumney, two-time Oscar winner Andy Nelson and Shawn Murphy). One of the most complex sequences was the dance at the school gym between the rival Jets and Sharks gangs, where Maria (Rachel Zegler) and Tony (Ansel Elgort) meet for the first time. Sound was ubiquitous so everyone was wired for a dancing cacophony, and for dialogue they boomed everyone accordingly. Most of the dancing was recorded live to achieve great energy, but they later had to match it in post with all of the dancers recreating their footsteps and corresponding vocal shouting.
For Jane Campion’s psychological western, “The Power of the Dog,” a natural, visceral soundscape was important in conveying the time and place of 1920s Montana (shot in New Zealand). For the sound team (Richard Flynn, Robert Mackenzie and Tara Webb) this included the pounding hooves of a cattle drive, the wind, the slap of a horse’s flank, the placid hum of a stream. There was also the use of Phil’s (Benjamin Cumberbatch) banjo as a weapon to mock Rose’s (Kirsten Dunst) inferior piano skills.
To recreate the city of Kenneth Branagh’s memories for “Belfast,” the sound team (Denise Yarde, Simon Chase, James Mather and Niv Adiri) built a soundscape reminiscent of his childhood. It was therefore important to bring the viewer into the small street that Buddy (Jude Hill) lived on, and to use Atmos to encompass everything that he heard during this tumultuous time in the late ’60s between Protestants and Catholics. The team added subjective touches as well, including pitching down the police officer’s voice to make him more frightening, or adding the roar of a train before the first riot erupts. Also, the city is depicted as a separate character, conveyed in large part through such sounds as helicopters, birds, or the laughter of people in the street. This is juxtaposed with the quiet, tender sounds of Buddy’s family.
Below are the nominees ranked in order of likelihood to win:
“No Time to Die”
“West Side Story”
“The Power of the Dog”